My first encounter with Willa Cather’s writing was in a dual-credit English class my senior year of high school. Our assignment was to read O Pioneers! and write a literary analysis paper, a type of writing with which I was mostly unfamiliar. I remember that I wrote about some religious symbolism, something that seemed very prominent to me at the time. I remember that it was a Dover Thrift Edition of the book, a book that I still have in my office at my university, to the right of My Antonia.
Much time passed, I completed my undergraduate studies (majoring in Literature/Creative Writing & Vocal Music Performance), and I continued to my MFA in Creative Writing program. During that ten-year span, I read only one other work by Cather: the short story “Paul’s Case.” However, during that period, I become much more interested in literature connected with place, and more specifically, literature set in the Midwest and the Great Plains.
Fast-forward to 2008 while I was enrolled in “Twentieth-Century American Novel” (my second semester in a PhD program), and I was assigned my second Cather novel: My Antonia. By this time, my creative writing (poetry and fiction) was set in my own fictional realms in the Upper Midwest, and when I read Cather this time, something was different. I was ready for it. (It probably helped that I was living in South Dakota as well.)
Of the novels we read that semester, all of which I enjoyed immensely, none left quite a powerful impression as did My Antonia. In her prose, I found an attention to rhythms of language, a lyricism that I was striving to develop in my own writing. What imagery. What mastery of the sentence. And the story, how it captivated me.
The book itself, and so much about her skill as a writer, amazed me such that I wrote my mid-term paper about the book. And when the opportunity came to teach two sections of a freshman-level Introduction to Literature, and I learned I was required to assign one novel in addition to the provided anthology, well, it was a quick (and easy) decision.
My students, overall, really enjoyed the book. I had been concerned that, due to its publication in 1917, my students would find My Antonia “too boring” or “too old-fashioned.” On the contrary, they took to it with an enthusiasm I could only have dreamed of.
Fast-forward to 2014 and I began reading The Professor’s House, an appropriate text for me. I moved through it quickly over a vacation back to Minnesota. Next was Death Comes for the Archbishop. On my Minnesota vacation in 2015, I read The Song of the Lark. And in the time since then, I read more of her novels, bringing me up to her 12th (and final) novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl.
Even as I am only a few chapters into the novel, there is a sadness in the background. I am reading the book with the knowledge that there are no more Cather novels to read. I will move on (after this book) to her short fiction, essays, and poetry. Then, perhaps, I will return to the novels.
But helping me deal with this sadness is the awareness that later this summer, on my way to Minnesota, my family and I will be making a detour to Red Cloud, Nebraska. Cather lived there several years as a child and teenager, and various historic sites are preserved, including her childhood home. In addition, there is a newly opened museum dedicated to her life and work.
It is the first such literary pilgrimage I will have made, and I am trying to avoid counting the days until I arrive. In the meantime, though, I will continue to savor her words, grateful for this writer who has taught me so much and given me so many hours of reading pleasure.
“Let your fiction grow out of the land beneath your feet.” –Willa Cather–